Tuesday, September 25, 2012

Letters from Westmoreland

Two memoranda from the office of General William Westmoreland have gained the attention of historians. Both memos were written by Westmoreland’s senior staff, one sent out with Westmoreland’s signature, and the other with his approval: this pair of documents sheds light on a decisive moment in the war.

In late 1964 or early 1965, Westmoreland was one of the architects of “Rolling Thunder” and saw how LBJ had weakened the bombing program, reducing its effectiveness. Historians Allan Millett and Peter Maslowski report that, as Rolling Thunder failed to produce a decisive result, Westmoreland in mid-1965 advised, from his vantage point in Vietnam, that LBJ quickly commit large numbers of ground troops. Johnson gave Westmoreland almost as many troops as he requested, but placed strict rules of engagement on them, and refused to mobilize the home front either in terms of calling up reserves or in terms of the economy, a sign that he wanted “the military to fight a real war without appearing to do so.” Despite LBJ’s lack of supportiveness, Westmoreland managed some early victories by developing a “search and destroy” strategy, using the tactic of helicopter-driven mobility. Given “the superb performance of the first Marine and Army battalions,” the U.S. “threw the NVA on the defensive and sent it scurrying.” The war’s three sectors – northern provinces, central provinces, and the area northwest of Saigon – grew to four sectors as Westmoreland began operations in the Mekong Delta south of Saigon. As the war grew, so did the need for troops, but LBJ continued to understaff the Army. Westmoreland made use of troops from The Army of the Republic of Vietnam; “ARVN units could show as much ferocity as their Communist brethren,” although Westmoreland saw to it that they were always supervised by U.S. units. Again, Westmoreland did well despite LBJ: he “had thrown the NVA on the defensive, but” was continually hampered by the lack of troops. In early 1968, the so-called “Tet Offensive” did not catch Westmoreland by surprise: Army intelligence had caused him to place units on alert. It did, however, surprise the ARVN. The Tet Offensive ended when “the Communists suffered a catastrophic battlefield defeat.” LBJ still refused to send the needed troops, and managed to snatch “defeat from the jaws of victory.” Westmoreland was re-assigned stateside in the same year, and drawn-out denouement began.

Historian Russell Weigley offers a similar synopsis of Westmoreland’s career. By early 1965, Westmoreland, on the ground, saw that South Vietnam would probably not survive without quick significant amounts of American intervention. Weigley’s account is similar to the one offered by Millett and Maslowski: Westmoreland never got enough soldiers from LBJ, wanted to seize the initiative and offensive, and was hindered by LBJ’s rules of engagement.

The two documents, unearthed by historian John Carland, give an inside view of the narrative summarized above. Written in September and December of 1965, they highlight Westmoreland’s insights into the situation. Carland explains:

Despite its misleading title, the first document — “Tactics and Techniques for Employment of US Forces in the Republic of Vietnam” — contains a vigorously written, well-crafted, full-fledged theory of victory. Dated 17 September 1965, it laid out the necessary conditions for achieving victory and provided to senior American commanders and units practical steps and guidance, presented in a methodical and logical way, to achieve the necessary tactical, operational, and strategic objectives to defeat their Communist adversaries. Moreover, it made clear that when military victories were won, their significance lay in the degree to which they advanced and supported South Vietnam’s pacification/nationbuilding effort. Westmoreland and his senior subordinates knew that if they failed to integrate the “fighting” war with the “other” (i.e., pacification) war, they would not succeed — their efforts and sacrifices would be for naught.

Westmoreland understood that he needed to do more than “fight a war” – that this conflict would include a political effort which would ultimately be as important, or more so, than the military effort. If the population of South Vietnam embraced the view that it had a trustworthy government, a trustworthy ally in the U.S., a very real chance of winning, and an enthusiasm for its own democratic development, they could win the war. But if the people in the south fell to communist propaganda, to pessimism about U.S. support, and to defeatism about its own cause, defeat was likely or certain. Ten years before the fall of Saigon, Westmoreland grasped the larger situation well. The September document states that “the mission” of the U.S. “to defeat” the Communists, but equally to “facilitate effective governmental control,” and that the war “is a political as well as a military war.”

The second document, issued on 10 December 1965, followed logically on the first. Titled “Tactical Employment of US Forces and Defensive Action,” it represented a critique of American ground forces’ operations and combat to date. Westmoreland concluded that despite considerable accomplishments in the war without fronts, “we are not engaging the VC with sufficient frequency or effectiveness to win the war in Vietnam.” The U.S. troops had shown themselves to be superb soldiers, adept at carrying out attacks against base areas and mounting sustained operations in populated areas. Yet, the operational initiative — decisions to engage and disengage — continued to be with the enemy. Through intelligence developed in operations and from other sources, American commanders had to find better ways to take the fight to the enemy. Only by doing so could U.S. forces make the best use of America’s twin advantages of firepower and mobility.

In more military terms, Westmoreland knew that this would be “a war without fronts,” requiring the “search and destroy missions” by U.S. forces, but also requiring U.S. forces to defend against guerilla war. The September document notes that “the conduct of U.S. troops must be carefully controlled at all times,” in order “to minimize battle casualties among those non-combatants who must be brought back into the fold.” The December document, alerting commanders to the needs of all servicemen – quartermasters and cooks, Air Force and Navy personnel – to defend their bases and installations, and reviewing U.S. performance in the field, offers the belief that “the average American has amply demonstrated that he is instinctively an effective fighter with small arms.”

Reading fifty years after the fact, Westmoreland appears to be caught in a Kafkaesque tragedy. Although responsible historians should not dabble in counterfactual speculations (“what would have happened if ...”), yet one cannot help but hypothesize that the U.S. really could have won the war if Congress and LBJ had done a few things differently.

Many readers now living had family members and friends who served in Vietnam, were eligible for the draft, or were only a few years to young to be of age during the war. Unlike Korea and WWII, Vietnam is near enough in time that it carries experiential and emotional impact; many readers recall watching Walter Cronkite and video clips of the war. Some were too young then to understand the complex tangle of political maneuverings which informed LBJ’s policies, but looking back, they can understand why Donald Rumsfeld, a member of the House of Representatives, sponsored the Freedom of Information Act as a tool for Republican Congressmen to get LBJ to give them solid data about Vietnam.

In any case, John Carland has given us two important primary text documents which shed light on a capable military leader who was never given the chance to implement his plans.